Hotel Alvear Palace and the plot thickens
I flash a smile towards Nancy the waitress, and without a word she arrives with a second champagne glass for Moneypenny, who is now settled alongside me fiddling with her shoe strap. The convention - that men and women sit separately has long since been abandoned at Canning, but the milongueros know that I usually sit alone, so this presents a field day for wagging tongues. Fortunately, my grasp of Castillano is not sufficient to understand their remarks.
“Bond, you really must tell me what is going on. First, the cemetery, then the mansion in Peru? And who are these people - Richard, Jay and the others?”
“Whoa”, I say, “I will tell you what you need to know, but here is not the place”. “If you look behind, you will see that even the walls have ears”, I add glancing at the rows of tangueros in front of Canning’s huge wall mural.
“But I can say this, old girl”, you’re quite something. You showed your metal in following me to Recoleta, and followed it up by getting the envelope. How long did it take you to solve the riddle?”
Moneypenny smiles. “Well, old boy, I think that that must wait for a proper debrief, don’t you?”, she adds mischievously. “But Bond, are you still working for HMG, and is this something to do with that? I am right, aren’t I”? “You needed me at Peru, for some reason. You must tell me for it seems that I am being pulled into something way over my head”. “And this time you can tell me somewhere a little more salubrious than the Cafe Paulin cupboard”.
“ Alvear Palace Hotel for tea tomorrow”, I reply “and I promise I will tell you what you need to know”. With that, and a tanda of Edgardo Donato, we return to dance.
The penalty of allowing Moneypenny to pay for lunch at Cafe Paulin was the bonus of her company for afternoon tea at the Alvear. But it was clear that tea and cakes were the least important topics on her agenda. Our chat at Canning had left much unsaid, and the relative privacy of L’ Orangery at Hotel Alvear was the perfect place to say it.
Some say that the Alvear Palace is the best hotel in Buenos Aires. It is certainly one of the poshest. Mounting the steps, and slipping Jorge, my regular doorman, a crisp 500 peso note, I pass the showcases of Arita jewellery and Cartier watches in the entrance foyer, and make my way through to the lounge where we had arranged to meet.
Plush, but relaxing, this is not a casual stopping point, but a destination in itself; for it is from here that one may see the rich and the infamous as they arrive and leave. Jorge has excelled himself, for it is within moments that a tiny waiter arrives with a tray bearing a single, simple Martini - cool and shaken just as I like it.
Afternoon tea at the Alvear is an institution to be taken seriously. Moneypenny, having listened to my instructions, arrives promptly and is dressed for the occasion. Her tight black dress shows her figure as she walks towards me, and I notice that she wears new Katrinski tango shoes and a flower in her hair.
“Hola, Mr Bond”, now this is more like it”, she blurts, clearly recalling her first impressions of the ‘cupboard’ Cafe Paulin and pleased that the experience is rectified by Alvear splendour. “Right, which way for tea?”, she adds, looking around herself approvingly.
“Straight ahead if you will, old girl”, I rejoin, noticing a flash of disapproval on her face. Nevertheless, she dutifully links arms to walk along the deep carpet to L’Orangerie. Led by the waiter carrying the Martini, we pass the salon pianist in full flow, neglect the booking-in desk, and go straight to our private table. It seems, working with Jorge over the years - and the generous tip, is paying dividends.
A bonus of L’Orangerie is the huge tables that form an acre of space sufficient for ten diners, making it impossible to be overheard. But our waiter takes us to a small table just laid for two, tucked privately in the corner of the salon.
I pull out a chair for Moneypenny, and she feigns delight. “Oh, Mr Bond, how kind”, she says unconvincingly as she lowers herself with unusual elegance. I wonder to myself whether she has ever taken tea Buenos Aires style before?
“First things first, Moneypenny”, I announce, “a glass of proper champagne - not the old Canning plonk?”. “Yes please, what fun”, she replies excitedly, but with a hint of impatience. “And which tea would the old chica prefer”, I continue undeterred. For the second time her eyes flash with annoyance as she checks the list of teas, their descriptions listed page after page. “What’s this Genmaicha tea like?”, “or would you choose the rare Rose Petal for me?”, she says tersely.
“For me, it's simple old Earl Grey”, I say, and the waiter scurries off to find the sommelier with our choice of champagne.
Tea, when it arrives, is a miniature feast. Fortunately Moneypenny has taken my advice and not eaten since her breakfast of grapefruit. At first sight, the tiny trimmed sandwiches appear insufficient even for our diminutive waiter’s frame, let alone a grown man and his hungry companion. But appearances are deceptive, and it is not long before we turn to the mini pâtisserie, fresh fruit tarts, warm scones and other delicacies prepared by the hotel’s Chef Pâtissier.
As we share the specialty cakes that are always served right at the end of the meal, and the salon pianist embellishes “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’, Moneypenny leans back to search for her handbag from beneath the drop of the white linen tablecloth, returning clutching an envelope, which I immediately recognise.
“Now, Mr Bond, it’s time for reckoning. Guess what I have here?”, she says, and places the green envelope onto the table, carefully withdrawing its contents….
“I think we have some talking to do, Mr Bond; don’t you?”
Bond escorts me to his table under the gaze of Canning’s regulars, who know he always sits alone. I can only imagine the stories that will run rampant in the tango community tomorrow. Bond and I should give them something to really talk about….
The pista is crowded, ‘Orchestra Juan d’Arienzo’ is playing live tonight and that has brought more than just the usual posh tangeros, with an invasion of tourists clicking their cameras. I have little desire to dance like a sardine tonight and I have more pressing matters on my mind.
“Bond, you really must tell me what is going on”, I start. “First, the cemetery, then the mansion in Peru? And who are these people - Richard, Jay and the others?”
Bond smiles at me and tells me that this is not the time or place to discuss such matters. “ Alvear Palace tomorrow for tea and I’ll try to satisfy your curiosity”, he says as he pours me a glass of Veuve Clicquot.
“Cafe Alvear, por favor”, I tell the taxi driver. Fifteen minutes later we arrive in front of Hotel Alvear Palace, one of the city’s best examples of luxury. I have wanted to come here for ages.
I bump my head as I leave the taxi and almost lose the flower from my hair. Clicking my new Katrinskis up the steps I have a quick browse of the cases of jewellery, before the rather attentive doorman welcomes me. I’m early and Bond hasn’t arrived, so next I head towards the powder room to fix my hair. With large mirrors, a selection of perfumes to choose from and even more hair products, the washrooms are a sight in of themselves. One might even come here just for them. I fix my hair and take one last look at the black dress I borrowed from Sabrina - an Armani that she wore last year when we went to Colon. I hope Mr. Bond approves.
I go up the stairs and spot him immediately, predictably with a Martini in his hand. “Hola, Mr Bond, now this is more like it, not quite the same feel as yesterday’s lunch”, I say looking around and recalling our lunch at Paulin where Bond, as in tango, had opted for a close embrace meeting.
We walk towards our table in L’Orangerie. It’s filled with plants, almost blinding white tablecloths and sparkling silverware. It reminds me of tea at the Plaza in New York, or the Gerbaud in Budapest - the cities of my previous life.
We order our tea. Bond orders champagne, of course, for it would be inconceivable that any of our meetings would be alcohol free, even afternoon tea. Once we’re settled with tea, drinks and cakes, I pull out the envelope from my purse dramatically and place it in front of Bond.
I look into his eyes. “I think we have some talking to do, Mr Bond, don’t you? How did you know I was at the cemetery? Who were all those people at the mansion? How come Sabrina was there? Am I being used for something I might not want to be a part of? Or is this just some of tango initiation ritual?”
“Slow down old girl, you almost made me choke on my cucumber sandwich! I will tell you everything, just be patient”, he responds. “Everything?”, I ask with a hint of sarcasm knowing full well he’ll tell just enough to tease my taste buds, and claim that it is all I need to know.
“Let’s just say I’ll tell you all you need to know”, he begins, when I interrupt him. “I knew it, but go ahead anyway”, knowing it’s hopeless to get more out of him.
“Good girl! So it goes like this. Of course I knew you were in the cemetery. First, with your adorable short, blond hair you stick out like a sore thumb, not to mention that little mini-skirt number you wore yesterday. Anyone would spot your creamy white legs from miles away. Second, I knew you would follow me when I left Paulin; I purposely left mysteriously knowing it would pique your interest. You took the bait just as expected. These obvious baits might be treacherous - you’ll have to be more careful in future.”
“Wait, what future?”, I interrupt again. “Don’t interrupt me, or you’ll get no more of this story”, he retorts. “Fine!”, I lash back.
“You were meant to follow me; you were meant to find that envelope which I so obviously left in plain sight. The riddle was a test. I wasn’t sure you would decipher it but Sabrina on the other hand was sure you would. That woman does have good instinct, I can’t take that away from her. And before you get all lovey-dovey on me, yes Sabrina and I still speak occasionally, but no there is no chance us rekindling whatever it is that you think we had”.
“Oh but Bond”, I interjected, “there must still be something there!” I was beginning to sound like a teenager reading a romance novel and hopelessly waiting for the ‘and they lived happily ever after’ ending.
“Oh but Bond nothing!”, he continued, “now, about the cemetery, the woman I met there, Maria Cristina, is my contact in Buenos Aires. We worked together in the UK. She scripts the missions, no specifics, just places to be, people to meet, and I provide her with the information she seeks”.
“That was how Sabrina and I came to meet years back at one of Dr Richard Alvarez’s parties. I recruited her that night, but got more than I bargained for. Sabrina was a natural - charming, pleasing and smart as a fox. Within an hour, she could get information from Stalin himself if needed. We worked together for many years. Much like our respective countries, our relationship has been one of ups and downs, collaboration and deceit. Nonetheless, HMG has repaid her services handsomely, hence a seemingly endless supply of Manolo Blahniks and Armani dresses”.
“Anyhow, last night I wanted you to meet Richard - and more importantly his partner Jay who is the way to Richard. Who Richard may be, and why he is important matters not right now; what does matter is the information on Richard that I believe Jay will provide if given the right push. Which is where you come in, my dear”. He pauses and looks directly in my eyes.
“Me? What can I do?” I asked, intrigued. “You’re going to get that information. Maybe not you directly, you’re not ready, so we need an information mule of some kind, someone who can be disposed of once its done,” he responds.
“I have an idea that I’m sure will work”, I say triumphantly.
What did I have to lose really? I had made no real plans, I just bought the ticket, threw a few things in my backpack and ran away....
Moneypenny I take the note, start to walk towards San Telmo while trying to make sense of what I had just seen. Was this a secret...
Mr Bond I flash a smile towards Nancy the waitress, and without a word she arrives with a second champagne glass for Moneypenny, who...